Several years ago, I watched a documentary called “Tim’s Vermeer.” For any art lovers out there, the film documents a gentleman (Tim Jenison) who sets out to prove that Johannes Vermeer, the Golden Age Dutch master of light and stillness, did not paint his striking images strictly from his own ocular observation. Instead, Tim argues, Vermeer used a camera obscura, or a similar optical machine, to capture the perfect light for which Vermeer is famed. In the end, Jenison concludes that Vermeer was not blessed with any divine or preternatural ability. He was just a man with the right tools; his inimitable masterpieces reduced to paint-by-numbers.
The notion that art serves no practical purpose and that technology serves no aesthetic master is kind of absurd.
All these years later, I remain disturbed by the suggestion that discovering Vermeer’s technological aids somehow unmasks or reveals the concept of Vermeer: The Great Artist as myth. Truthfully, there is no distinction between creation for the sake of form and creation for the sake of function. Put another way – to create is to innovate, and to innovate is to create. For example, consider 2 architectural innovations: (1) the arch introduced in ancient times from cultures around the world, and (2) the flying buttresses introduced in gothic style cathedrals. Each became a cornerstone of aesthetic design, but were introduced to solve questions of function.
The arch, as an architectural design, solved many practical problems. Arches can carry a much larger load than a mere horizontal beam, thus making them useful for designing an aqueduct, a large edifice or other structures that feature some weight being carried. Further, arches can be created using small, easily carried and hoisted blocks, thus making their construction much easier than if one were to use a large stone support.
The flying buttress similarly serves form and function in equal measure. We all know that the buttress was designed to support taller structures (frequently cathedrals). The external support provided by the flying buttress also allowed for thinner walls that were stylistically ideal for showcasing larger and more ornate stained glass windows.
Fast forward to the late 20th Century, and the fusion of art and technology persists in the field of computer graphics. In 1986, the pioneers at Pixar developed an imaging computer so powerful that it found its original use, not in animating lovable characters for children, but in the field of medical imaging and diagnostics. The medical community and the film industry have been ping-ponging technology ever since.
Now, am I saying there is no such thing as a painting that serves no function? No, I’m not. Individual works of art can exist without innovation. Similarly, I can make a chair with no intention towards improving its design. But once I begin to innovate beyond what’s been done before, both in painting and in designing my chair, creativity has emerged. And that creativity necessarily serves both function and form. A creative brushstroke in my painting is a technological development, even if its only practical function is to create a particular visual effect. And any practical addition to my chair becomes a design element; thus, art.
As for Tim’s Vermeer, I’ll leave to anyone who would like to watch the documentary the question of whether they are convinced that Vermeer used optical tools to create his masterpieces, and what effect such a discovery might have on one’s admiration of his work. But what I do know is that a large part of the documentary’s premise is illusory. If, in fact, Vermeer used the properties of optics and physics to aid in his paintings, a divine hand remains at work. I mean, come on! A 16th century painter turning a live scene into a paint-by-numbers scheme using mirrors and lenses is inspired! And the great, ingenious artist remains thus.